21 Leaders for the 21st Century

2011 - Seven Who Create New Visions of Change

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Jessica Lagunas, Emily May, Robina Niaz, MS, MSW, Valerie Oliver-Durrah, Toni Reinhold, Pamela Shifman, Maile M. Zambuto



Jessica Lagunas: Guatemalan Multimedia Visionary

Jessica Lagunas

Internationally-known artist Jessica Lagunas creates video performances and art installations to send a strong feminist message.

"I feel that beauty must come from within. There is no need to follow standards of beauty that were never set up by us in the first place," Lagunas says. "If more people believe in themselves and how beautiful they already are, there would be more self-confidence going around."

Lagunas has lived and worked in New York since 2001, creating women-centric art that's been exhibited around the world. In 2009, the Rollo Contemporary Art Gallery in London showed four of her videos--each roughly an hour long--in which she continuously applies mascara, nail polish, lipstick and plucks her pubic hair. In the first three videos, the makeup becomes increasingly messy over time. The series is meant to question beauty standards women are expected to follow in society.

One of Lagunas' favorite pieces is "Forever Young," an ongoing project she started in 2004. Faced with impending gray hair, she decided to use her own gradually-graying strands to embroider her age on black silk. The series represents her embracing the aging process and rejecting the temptation to lie about her age.

"I really wanted to [show] that there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying your current age," Lagunas says.

Lagunas was born in Nicaragua and raised in Guatemala, where she obtained a degree in graphic design from Universidad Rafael Landívar in 1992. She made the transition to creating art in the late 1990s, inspired by her trips to contemporary art museums in Europe and New York, art workshops with French artist Véronique Simar and influenced by Colloquia, a contemporary cultural center in Guatemala.

In Guatemala, "there is a lot of machismo going on, you can really feel the oppression towards women," Lagunas says. "We didn't feel it in our own situations, but we were aware that the majority of women are going through these things."

Lagunas continued to create art projects upon arriving in New York in 2001. She has had her work in collective group shows at the Bronx Museum (2006), El Museo del Barrio (2007), the Jersey City Museum (2007, 2010), the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance and biennials around the world. Her work is also included in the book "Imagining Ourselves: Global Voices from a New Generation of Women," published in 2006 by the International Museum of Women in San Francisco.

Her latest endeavor is "Intimate Stories," a book featuring handwritten stories from 25 women in her family about their early experiences with menstruation. Lagunas' goal for this project is to demonstrate how attitudes about menstruation have changed through the years.

"My intentions are that women look at [my art] and become more conscious. For me, that's the important thing," Lagunas says. "The moment that you are aware of something, it empowers you."

--Amy Rubinson

Emily May: Techie on a Mission

Emily May

Emily May is the happy producer of a new application for the iPhone and Droid, one she believes could dramatically reduce the level of street harassment women experience every day. One of the new generation of feminists, she is using technology to create a movement to put a stop to this form of violence against women, which is largely ignored.

"Today, it's at epidemic proportions and there was no real outlet for the everyday person walking down the street to address this," says May.

In 2005, May and a group of friends had a discussion about street harassment--something she experienced frequently as an urban dweller. They brainstormed ideas over drinks at a bar and came up with the idea to start a blog called Hollaback! They wondered if anyone would pay attention to it, and to their surprise it quickly took off.

"We realized at that point that we hit a nerve," says May.

Hollaback! allows women to post photos of their harassers--often taken with a camera phone--along with a story about their experiences. Women responded positively to the idea of having a community to discuss such incidents and thrived on using technology to spur social change. Volunteers launched spin-off Hollaback! blogs in cities such as Washington, D.C., and London.

Major news outlets reported the launch of Hollaback!'s iPhone application in November, which allows victims of street harassment to submit their stories and photos on the go.

"The picture is really about telling the story," May says. "By having a picture there, it helps the other person looking at the story to be in that person's shoes."

May's interest in women's rights was first sparked at the age of 7, when her aunt gave her a biography of Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century leader of the women's suffrage movement.

"I always wondered, 'What is that issue for our generation?' And I think that issue is street harassment," May says.

After earning a bachelor's degree at New York University and receiving a master's degree from the London School of Economics, May became the full-time executive director of Hollaback! in 2010.

Now a full-scale nonprofit organization, Hollaback! is working with the New York City Council to fund a two-year study on street harassment. May hopes to be instrumental in conducting more research to provide evidence on the frequency of street harassment, demonstrate its impact and establish effective strategies for eliminating it.

"We are really just in the beginning, now is such an exciting time," May says. "There seems to be such an incredible energy around street harassment right now that I think is historically unprecedented."

--Amy Rubinson

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Robina Niaz: Finder of Peace for Muslim Women

Robina Niaz

Robina Niaz immigrated to the United States to follow her dreams after her marriage. Settled in New York City, she lived through two nightmares instead--terror at home and the Sept. 11 attacks, led by extremist members of her Muslim faith.

Now, she works full time to assist New York's Muslim women who survived domestic violence to pursue their dreams of safety and independence.

Born and raised in Pakistan, Niaz saw women who "weren't being treated the way they should be." Fortunately, she wasn't one of them.

"My father believed in having educated and independent daughters, even though our mother wanted us to be traditional," Niaz says.

She earned a master's degree in applied psychology and had a successful career in international affairs, marketing and advertising. In 1990, she married and moved from Pakistan to the United States with her husband.

"You don't plan for a divorce or to find yourself in a situation where you become a survivor," Niaz says. "There was a lot of emotional, psychological, sexual and financial abuse."

After her divorce, Niaz had trouble getting back on her feet, even though she had education and a former career. She realized afterwards that the scars that don't show are the hardest to heal.

"If I felt that isolated and alone and was finding it so hard to restart my life, I couldn't imagine how hard it must be for women without the education and language skills," Niaz says.

That revelation steered her to do volunteer work. "It was helping me heal," Niaz says. "That's when I decided to go do nonprofit rather than corporate."

Niaz started out as a counselor and earned her second master's degree in social work at New York City's Hunter College in 2000. She began working with domestic violence survivors, but when the terrorist attacks occurred in 2001, she witnessed a change: an intense backlash against all Muslims. She became deeply concerned about how this anti-Muslim sentiment would affect women who needed help.

"Women in domestic violence are more afraid to be judged as Muslims before victims," she says.

In response, in 2004 Niaz founded Turning Point for Women and Families, the first organization in New York City, and still the only one, to address domestic violence in the Muslim community. It focuses on four areas: direct services/crisis intervention, development and leadership skills for young Muslim women, community education and outreach and addressing the scarcity of social workers in the Muslim community. Her efforts bore fruit in 2009, when she was named a CNN Hero and when she received the 2010 Local Hero by the Bank of America.

Looking back on her progress and reflecting on the future, Niaz is especially impressed with the young women she works with and is inspired by how they are evolving into budding leaders. She hopes one of them will step up to fill her role.

"One of the things at the core of our mission is that we don't empower women, we help them empower themselves," Niaz says. "If they do that, our dream is fulfilled."

--Colleen Flaherty

Valerie Oliver-Durrah: Carrier of Values Forward

Valerie Oliver-Durrah

The unfinished work of the civil rights movement is the mission for Valerie Oliver-Durrah, who inherited a legacy of activist female leaders within her family.

Her most recent breakthrough is the founding of the Black Women for Black Girls Giving Circle, a philanthropic collective that seeks to amass knowledge and financial resources to support the empowerment of black girls in New York City.

Shortly after coming together, the organization dedicated its resources to independently research the state of black girls in New York City. Its findings were unveiled in the 2010 report "Black Girls in New York City: Untold Strength and Resilience." One of the report's findings was that 48 percent of those surveyed listed their mother as their greatest influence in life, but only 8 percent said the same about their father.

"We've never really looked deeply at the specific problems black girls face," Oliver-Durrah says, citing poverty, personal safety and self-esteem as issues of concern.

She believes part of the solution to helping them surmount these challenges lies with black women, adding that "we wanted the report to serve as a call to action."

Oliver-Durrah started her career as a program director with the Girls Club of America in Memphis, Tenn., where she says she came to understand the value of mentorship and role models for transforming girls' lives. She also found inspiration by following in the footsteps of her mother, grandmother and aunts, who were active in their communities during the civil rights movement.

"Seeing the women in my family rise, it made me ask what can I do?" she says.

Oliver-Durrah does her part by also serving as president of the New York City-based Neighborhood Technical Assistance Clinic, a nonprofit organization she founded in 1998 to provide strategic direction, organizational oversight and technical assistance to grassroots groups and grant makers. She supports these groups' potential to make change and is especially proud of the programs she's designed to support black women working to improve quality-of-life issues in their communities.

"I'm supposed to be a servant and give back to the community," Oliver-Durrah told The Network Journal in 2009 in its "25 Influential Black Women in Business" feature.

Oliver-Durrah hopes to create a strong cadre of black professional female mentors and donors through the giving circle. She's inspired by what she says are growing numbers of professional black women who want to leave a legacy.

"They need the right forum to do that and we want to provide that through the giving circle," Oliver-Durrah says. "I want black girls to say they were able to do bigger and better things because we took them under our wings."

-- Naomi Abraham

Toni Reinhold: Self-Made Reporter of Injustice

Toni Reinhold

Toni Reinhold is a tireless leader when it comes to advancing women's rights. As an editor at Thomson Reuters and president of the Newswomen's Club of New York, she's a young and active pioneer for female journalists.

Reinhold says she first experienced gender differences in the work place soon after graduating from an all-girls high school in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"In school we were taught that we could achieve anything if we were smart and persevered," she says. "This was during the Vietnam War and a great cultural revolution. We believed we could change the world."

However, she says, she discovered that no matter how smart or dedicated women were, they were often not hired or promoted on the basis of meritocracy. "We often did not get equal pay for equal work. We were not preferred job candidates if we were pregnant, of childbearing age or over a certain age."

Reinhold achieved success on her own terms by taking college classes at night and freelancing for the New York Daily News and radio stations WNBC and WHN. She was available for assignments at all hours, often working around the clock on breaking news while building a reputation as an investigative reporter.

"Women often have to work harder than men to get and retain the same positions, and women seem to have to constantly prove themselves," says Reinhold, who got her first full-time reporting job at age 19 at a weekly newspaper in Brooklyn.

Reinhold joined the Newswomen's Club of New York in her early 20s, after a male editor refused to let her go overseas to conclude a story that she had worked on for months.

"He said the overseas leg of it was 'a job for a man,'" she recalls.

In 2009, she became president of the club.

"Some women said maybe it was time for the club to die. I did not believe that," she says. "Women still face many of the same challenges as when the Newswomen's Club was established in 1922, and the glass ceiling is as real in journalism as it is in other professions. The club's mission is to promote the development and advancement of women in journalism and the highest standards of journalism. How could that not be relevant?"

Next, Reinhold wants to organize an annual International Conference of Newswomen under the auspices of the Newswomen's Club to give newswomen around the world a chance to network, share experiences and learn new skills.

"We'll do it because there is a need for it," she says.

--Angela Dallara

Pamela Shifman: Global Partner to Halt Violence

Pamela Shifman

Pamela Shifman thinks locally and globally when it comes to empowering women and girls.

She is the director of Initiatives for Women and Girls at the NoVo Foundation, co-chaired by Jennifer and Peter Buffett. NoVo unlocks the potential of girls and women to be powerful agents of change. Since joining the foundation in 2008, Shifman has shaped NoVo's work to empower adolescent girls and end violence against girls and women.

In 2008, NoVo partnered with the Nike Foundation to launch The Girl Effect. The initiative aims to change the path of girls in poverty from one involving early marriage, violence and poor health to that of opportunities for education, economic security and freedom from violence. NoVo and Nike together have invested more than $100 million for adolescent girls and have helped to mobilize action for the world's most marginalized girls.

"If you invest in an adolescent girl and change the course of her life, she has an impact on her family, her community and the world," Shifman says. "We call that the 'girl effect.'"

Shifman led a team to launch a new NoVo initiative in December called Move to End Violence. It is designed to strengthen our collective capacity to end violence against girls and women in the next decade in the U.S. The effort will provide critical support to anti-violence advocates working towards social change and will harness the potential of the U.S. anti-violence movement.

"Violence against girls and women is at the root of almost every major problem we face in society," Shifman says. "We need to transform our culture from one in which violence thrives to one in which violence is unacceptable."

When Shifman joined the NoVo Foundation, she brought with her nearly two decades of experience working to advance the rights of girls and women. Her previous stints included being co-executive director of Equality Now, a specialist on gender-based violence for UNICEF and a legal advisor to the South African ANC Parliamentary Women's Caucus. At the United Nations, Shifman led efforts to develop the first code of conduct to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers and staff. When working with the ANC Parliamentary Women's Caucus in South Africa, she helped develop the country's first post-apartheid domestic violence legislation.

"The equality of girls and women is fundamental to creating the kind of world we all want to live in," Shifman says, adding that, "a girl stifled by poverty or violence cannot reach her full potential."

--Amy Rubinson

Maile Zambuto: Builder of Communities Who Will Not Turn Away

Maile M. Zambuto

Cleaning the streets of Los Angeles in 1992, which were trashed by a community after the acquittal of police accused of beating Rodney King, provided an epiphany for Maile Zambuto, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a college rape.

"I remember that moment, contributing in the face of so much suffering," Zambuto says. "I felt a sense of worth and that I could be of use to another person and to a community in a positive way."

This was a dramatic change for Zambuto.

"After I was raped in college and after years of sexual abuse, I was convinced that I deserved to be violated and disrespected, that this suffering was meant for me," Zambuto says.

She began actively working to reduce violence against women and children and spent nine years at Safe Horizon in New York, one of nation's leading victim assistance organizations, as its chief development and marketing officer.

Three years ago, Zambuto joined her friend and fellow advocate, actor Mariska Hargitay, star of "Law and Order: SVU," as executive director for the Joyful Heart, Hargitay's foundation. The organization, based in New York and with offices in Los Angeles and Hawaii, is dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.

"What I carry with me about my experiences is not the abuse itself, but the response of those around me. And for many survivors, it's the same. Although everyone heals differently, the healing process often begins with and continues to be affected by the response of community," she says.

At Joyful Heart, she says, they envision a community that is strong enough not to turn away from survivors. We want "a community that says to a survivor, 'We hear you. We believe you. You are not alone. And your healing is our priority,'" she says.

Under Zambuto's leadership, the organization has directly served thousands of survivors and reached hundreds of thousands of individuals through public education using film, print and social media.

The foundation's most recent innovation is Heal the Healers, dedicated to supporting and restoring professionals in the field serving survivors, such as law enforcement officers, social workers, therapists and medical personnel.

For the past two years, Joyful Heart has also campaigned to draw attention to the backlog of an estimated 400,000 untested rape kits in the U.S. These kits contain evidence of an assault gathered from a victim's body, often in emergency rooms. However, the evidence gained often sits in storage--with the DNA samples and other information ignored.

"We care about them receiving the most compassionate and expert response and we care about getting justice for them." Zambuto says.

--Colleen Flaherty

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I hope these Seven talented women help other struggling women through alumni at their universities. As a starving female college student with a BA, mental illness has held me back. Getting my masters in psychology is my goal so I can help more women. I was born with two strikes, Mental Illness and my sex. We've come along way, but not enough of my sisters have arrived.

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